IDENTIFICATION AND USE: Phenol, is a toxic, colorless crystalline solid with a sweet tarry odor that resembles a hospital smell. It is commonly used as an antiseptic and disinfectant. It is active against a wide range of micro-organisms including some fungi and viruses, but is only slowly effective against spores.

  • The primary use of phenol is in the production of phenolic resins, which are used in the plywood, construction, automotive, and appliance industries.
  • Phenol is also used in the production of caprolactam and bisphenol A, which are intermediates in the manufacture of nylon and epoxy resins, respectively.
  • Other uses of phenol include as a slimicide, as a disinfectant, and in medicinal products such as ear and nose drops, throat lozenges, and mouthwashes.

HUMAN EXPOSURE AND TOXICITY: individuals may be exposed to phenol through breathing contaminated air or through skin contact in the workplace.

Other exposures to phenol may occur through the use of phenol-containing medicinal products (including mouthwashes, toothache drops, throat lozenges, analgesic rubs, and antiseptic lotions) or smoking tobacco.

Phenol can be detected in urine; this test can be used to determine whether a person has recently been exposed to phenol or to substances that are changed to phenol in the body. However, no test will tell whether a person has been exposed only to phenol, because many substances are changed to phenol in the body.

ACUTE EFFECTS: inhalation and dermal exposure to phenol is highly irritating to the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes in humans.

CHRONIC EFFECTS (NONCANCER): anorexia, progressive weight loss, diarrhea, vertigo, salivation, and a dark coloration of the urine have been reported in chronically exposed humans. Gastrointestinal irritation and blood and liver effects have also been reported. In one study, muscle pain, weakness, enlarged liver and elevated levels of liver enzymes were found in an individual after inhalation and dermal exposure to phenol and a few other chemicals.

Application of phenol to the skin results in dermal inflammation and necrosis. Cardiac arrhythmias have also been reported in humans exposed to high concentrations of phenol.

Chronic inhalation exposure of animals to phenol has shown central nervous systems (CNS), kidney, liver, respiratory, and cardiovascular effects.

REPRODUCTIVE/ DEVELOPMENTAL EFFECTS: no studies were located concerning the developmental or reproductive effects of phenol in humans. Animal studies have reported reduced fetal body weights, growth retardation, and abnormal development in the offspring of animals exposed to phenol by the oral route. Decreased maternal weight gain and increased maternal mortality were also observed.

CANCER RISK: small, non-significant excesses in certain types of cancers were reported in occupationally exposed workers; however, these effects were not clearly related to phenol exposure.

Animal studies have not seen tumors resulting from oral exposure to phenol, while dermal studies have reported that phenol applied to the skin may be a tumor promotor and/or a weak skin carcinogen in mice.

EPA has classified phenol as a Group D, not classifiable as to human carcinogenicity, based on a lack of data concerning carcinogenic effects in humans and animals.